3. Some languages don’t have words for stuff we say every day.
The Bible is full of fancy words you’re not likely to hear outside church, like “righteousness,” “sanctification” and “transgressions.” Finding a way to translate some of these theological monsters can leave a translator with a migraine.
But sometimes even the everyday words can be difficult to translate. For example, Bible translators for the Southwest Tanna language of Vanuatu ran into several issues when they tried to translate Genesis 4:15. In that verse God said that if anyone killed Cain, they would be avenged seven times. Trouble is, Southwest Tanna doesn’t have a word for ‘avenge’ or a unique word for the number seven! How do you even begin to translate verses like that?
Although they weren’t able to use numbers, the team members eventually came up with a translation that clearly communicated that if someone killed Cain, he’d receive a larger punishment than the one God had given Cain. But it took a lot of head scratching and prayer to find the right solution!
4. Some languages have way more verbs than we do in English.
While some languages don’t seem to have words for stuff we say every day, others have so many specific words that translators really have to choose carefully which one they need (or sometimes want) to use.
For example, the Tzeltal language in Southern Mexico has 26 very specific verbs for “to carry.” Lat’ means “to carry in a plate or container,” cats’ means “to carry tightly gripped between two objects” and tuch means “to carry in a vertical position.” And that’s just three of the options!
Choosing the right word for each verse can make translation a little tricky, but the great thing is that it adds a layer of visual detail we miss in English with our one verb, “carry.” While an English speaker might be frustrated by the limited word options in Southwest Tanna, imagine how a Tzeltal speaker would feel about our one English word for carry! This helps explain why scholars invest years of their lives learning the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek — because no translation is quite like the original.
5. Some languages can be whistled.
Here’s a funny story from Mexico:
One day a Mazateco woman was sweeping the floor of the Bible translators’ house when a young man walked by whistling. When she heard him, the woman ran outside and began to beat him with her broom! After breaking them up, the translators asked what was going on. The woman said the young man was saying bad things about her! And that’s how the translators found out Mazatecos sometimes use whistling to talk to each other.
Mazateco is just one of several languages around the world that can be whistled. I guess you can offend people, even if you thought you were just making music with your mouth!
To read part three, click here.